Monday, March 30, 2009

My little cup 'o joe

I'm not really one of those die-hard coffee drinkers. I used to always claim that I was a social drinker (um, coffee drinker that is) and only drink my Tall Non-Fat Caramel Macchiato when on a visit to my favorite little chain. In fact, there are 2 Starbuckses within walking distance from my house which made the whole trip so much more charming. Stroll to the coffee shop with Lucca in tow, get her a cup of water while I'd sit with my chosen companion and sip my mocha or latte...

However, I couldn't help but notice that I started getting myself a cup of coffee every morning in the office. And whenever invited to a cup at a friend's place, I would always partake. And I was even stopping into coffee shops to *gasp* drink by myself! By myself! That's no longer a social drinker! **Lucca and her Starbucks, pic taken August '08 (with my cell phone!)

So why didn't I own a coffee maker at home? Well, for a couple reasons. There's just one of me, so I didn't want to be making a whole pot each time I wanted a cup. And with my KitchenAid, toaster oven, utensil crock, Cuisinart, wine rack, dish rack -- there's really no room in my 4 x 6 foot kitchen. So on a whim, while at BB&B I bought this. It seemed like the perfect solution to assist in my seemingly apparent coffee habit.

It's a bit silly how excited I am about my new French press coffee maker. I realize probably 90% of Americans wake up each morning to cups of fresh, hot, strong coffee in their own kitchens. But the idea was so novel to me. Gosh, what I've been missing!

I still don't seem to find the time on weekdays, but last weekend I broke out my packet of Vanilla Coffee I bought while in Zanzibar in December, and brewed myself a cup

Just had to share my happy little find with you all. I'd imagine a handful of "readers" don't live in large spaces either. Well I have a couple hints for you if you decide to buy a French Press or already own one you don't use much. This particular Bodum will make about 3 cups of coffee. I'm talking a mug, not a demitasse. Roughly 30 oz. It takes about 3-4 tablespoons of course coffee grounds per cup of coffee being brewed. So for instance, if I'm making only 1 cup of coffee for myself it goes like this:
  • Boil around 1 ½ cups of water
  • Put 3-4 T of course coffee grounds into the bottom of the press
  • "Measure" the hot water by pouring it into the coffee mug I'm going to use
  • Pour the water from the mug into the press
  • Let steep for 4 minutes -- and enjoy!

I know, I did just write a "recipe" for coffee. What is going on?? Well, like I've said before - my blog is about whatever I want. And I'm enjoying this new contraption so you get to hear about it! If I help 1 person out by ridding them of their outdated, ugly, bulky old coffee maker to get a French press - it's worthwhile!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Noi mangiamo lasagna

"We eat lasagna" is for DARN SURE! Some few hundred (or more) Daring Bakers made lasagna for March! "Lasagna?" you ask. "Why, that doesn't seem like something one would purchase at a bakery." Touché. However, there will soon be a new group in Daring Kitchen Land -- the Daring Cooks! And lasagna this month was a nod in that direction. And afterall... it is baked!

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

I have to admit, I wasn't excited when I read that our challenge would be lasagna. I love lasagna, but it still didn't excite me nor did it really challenge me since I make homemade pasta often. But I persevered... Procrastinated, but persevered. I waited until the 11th hour and made it for dinner last night -- though I had made the ragu on Monday.

This lasagna is made up of fairly simple components:
  • spinach pasta sheets
  • meat ragu
  • béchamel sauce
  • Parmesan cheese

-- you read that right; no mozzarella and no ricotta! This is "classic" lasagna which comes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy (mozzarella is made in the South) and was traditionally made with the above listed items - even specifically the spinach in the pasta. It's also called Lasagne Verdi al Forno which means "baked green lasagna".

I was able to fit in 5 layers of pasta including the top layer

This challenge was centered around that spinach pasta and making it by hand. It was not requested or even suggested that we run out and buy a pasta machine, but I have to conclude that those of us who already owned one (or did in fact run out and buy one) had a much easier time of making this pasta. And had use of their arms and backs the next day as well! The rest of the dedicated Daring Bakers used a rolling pin, some swear words and a lot of upper body muscle! I'm a bit humbled to say that I fell into the former group. I already owned the pasta making attachments for my KitchenAid mixer. Which makes it even easier than having a hand-crank pasta machine (like Mom's). All I had to do was stand there, feed pasta sheets through, and trim them. Not much of a challenge per me. Lazy b@s+@rd...

I really never thought it'd come together with no water...

...but with enough kneading (15 minutes) it finally did!

When I read the pasta recipe (3 1/2 cups flour, 2 jumbo eggs and 6 ounces of spinach) I was SURE I was reading something wrong. Where was the other liquid? There's no way 3 1/2 cups of flour is gonna be absorbed by 2 eggs and some spinach. NO WAY. I started mixing and kneading and even had a small bowl of water at my side - just WAITING to need to incorporate it. But sure enough... after enough kneading - all was fine. I was floored! That spinach held more liquid than I could have ever imagined!

Very thin sheets of spinach pasta

I rolled my sheets to 6 thinness on the KA attachment. It was very delicate and thin and I could see the light from the window through it. Just beautiful pasta with barely a hint of spinach flavor.

Another option for drying your pasta if you run out of room on your rack

The ragu was really fantastic. It's not a very tomato-y sauce like I'm used to in lasagnas. It's all about the meat and reducing flavors into the meat. This recipe called for veal, Italian sausage, beef, pancetta and prosciutto. I went out and bought all the meats the recipe called for - even getting actual Prosciutto di Parma imported from Italy (at $TWENTY-SEVEN$ per POUND!) Good thing I only needed 1 ounce!
(The pancetta was already frying in the pan)

Mirepoix = onion, celery, carrot

The ragu starts with a mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot) to which you add the ground up meats. Reduce some wine into the mix and then a significant amount of milk (yes) and chicken stock. I luckily had some homemade chicken stock leftover from the weekend! Perhaps needless to say - this sauce was FLAVORFUL. It's such a sophisticated "gourmet" flavor that can't even compare with a tomato meat sauce.

The béchamel was of course, a piece of cake. Butter, flour, milk -- season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. I over salted my béchamel which led me to cook my noodles without salt...and all was fine!

Ready to bake

Assembly seemed like it'd be quick but took quite a while because of the layering:
1) spread béchamel
2) cook 1 layer of noodles and lay on top of béchamel
3) spread more béchamel and ragu
4) sprinkle Parmesan
-repeat- (I repeated 4 times)

The verdict?... Just eh. But, that would be my own mistake. When I made the ragu, I made half a recipe thinking we'd not need an entire 9x13 lasagna for the 2 of us. However, a couple days later, when I continued with the other ingredients and assembled - I did so in a 9x13 and did NOT half anything. Basically my brain farted. The end result was a tasty, but overly creamy and rich lasagna. I was craving more ragu (of course). I LOVED the tenderness of the homemade pasta sheets however and might never buy dried lasagna sheets again!

Those delicate sheets of pasta were worth it all

Out of pure curiosity - if anyone on this planet has read this entire entry, will you leave me a comment? I recently realized that one of my closest friends (a dedicated blog reader) can't even make her way through my long-winded DB posts. So if you do - I'd like to know and thank you!! Ha!

Follow the hosts' links to find the recipes, should you decide to tackle on your own. And don't forget to visit the other Daring Bakers for their versions as well! A new blogroll is coming soon, but until then click here. Ciao!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A repeat performance

I've already blogged about this cake. The cake my family (aunties) have been making for 60 years. Coffee Crunch Cake. I went back and read my other post about this cake and realized - I needed to re-shoot that cake! The photography skillz have been polished a bit over the last year and I had some time to actually "style" this past weekend - something I rarely have a chance to do. So with some better photos on hand and knowing how much history this cake has in my family, I figured no one would complain about a repeat performance.

We've been making my family's coffee crunch cake for 60 years

This cake gets easier and easier for me to make due likely to the more difficult things I bake. I actually chuckled when I read " really is a lot of work. But perhaps because of the work - it is SO satisfying to gaze upon the finished product." These days I say that about macarons! Making this cake is NOTHING anymore! I'm not sharing this recipe at the request of my family - one of those kinds of recipes... But there are many recipes out there if you Google "coffee crunch cake".

As the crunch sits in the whipping cream it "melts"; above shots were
after decorating while top and bottom shots were a day later
(threw some coffee beans in to show scale)

I sorta made this cake twice over the last week. Once Wednesday night for a work potluck on Thursday and a smaller version on Saturday (come on, can't let leftover crunch topping go to waste!) for dinner with Andrea and Jim in the city. All I really had to do was make the sponge cake twice since I had enough crunch and whipping cream takes all of about 2 minutes. The smaller version (that I shot here) is a 7" tube pan I was so excited to find a few years ago. I made a larger 10" (not shown) for the work gathering.

It really could have used another layer if only I had enough whipping cream

I'd normally do 3 layers, but I didn't have enough whipping cream, so 2 it was. I just love this cake. I love how the crunchy toffee slowly melts and gets ooey and gooey but crunchy chewy too. I've had more than one person ask if there is marshmallow in it! Very sweet and very good!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Oatmeal is good for your heart

And macarons are good for your happiness! I haven't made macarons in MONTHS. Which is a little unbelievable since at this time last year I was making multiple batches a week during some type of ridiculous obsession with thinking up macaron flavors and attempting to execute on them (I'd say 25-30% failed.) I've been obsessed with oatmeal raisin flavored things lately. Perhaps since it sounds healthy: "oatmeal raisin cookies?... healthy cookies!" or "oatmeal raisin ice cream?... healthy ice cream!" But wait, wouldn't it be a cookie that tastes like another cookie? I decided to try it: the oatmeal raisin macaron!

In celebration of Jour de Macaron (Macaron Day)!

I've had a lot of egg whites around lately. More than I can even use up, sadly. (Been making a lot of ice cream. And yes, oatmeal raisin ice cream was one!) So since Friday was French Macaron Day, ("French Maca-what Day?" yes, you read that correctly) I slipped a batch in just before midnight -- my own weird anal retentiveness pushing me to bake until ungodly hours.

So what is this French Macaron Day all about, you ask? Pierre Hermé created this day 4 years ago. On March 20th, all over France, at all Pierre Hermé shops and many others (various ones from the prestigious Relais Desserts Association) they are giving away 4 FREE macarons to anyone who comes in! FOUR FREE PIERRE HERMÉ MACARONS! It's not all about free macarons though. Proceeds from the members of Relais Desserts go to La Federation des Maladies Orphelines in addition to the having donation boxes in all the shops. It's reported that just about everyone receiving free macarons has contributed to the boxes, which just warms the heart.

Lines outside the shops are long (they are long on normal days so one can imagine how they'd be on "free macarons" day!) But while folks wait, they get a sheet explaining the charity and also listing out 30+ flavors of macarons they can choose from. THIRTY MACARON FLAVORS! (Can you tell my next trip to Paris is going to be in the month of March?) There's also a special macaron rouge (red macaron) which Pierre Hermé sells for €1 each specifically to raise money for the charity. What a wonderful win-win and all centered around those delectable, chewy, sweet little cookies we love so much.

Sprinkled with oats ---------------- Just a few rum raisins

It didn't take me long to figure out how I was going to make a macaron flavored with oatmeal and raisins. I ground up oats and used half almond meal and half ground oats in the shells. I made a cinnamon buttercream for the filling and simmered some raisins in sugar, water and rum to hide inside.
Oatmeal cookie with cinnamon buttercream
and a rum raisin hidden in the center

They're not my favorite flavor ever - afterall, they pretty much just taste like an oatmeal raisin cookie! But they turned out better than I expected other than the wrinkled tops which I blame on the rainy day (and therefore, the shells not hardening enough before baking).
I don't often have time for "styling" but this weekend - yes

Macarons continue to be the most difficult, temperamental, tricky little buggars I've ever produced in my kitchen. The biggest complaint I have is that I don't know exactly what causes each failure when I have one. I guess that means I just keep making [and eating] them, eh?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Humming in springtime

Today was the first day of Spring. While I realize this brings much happiness to most everyone on the planet, it makes me just a bit sad. Remember? It's not that I hate the sun. It's that I love the coziness of winter; fires in the fireplace, baking cookies, rain (or snow!) falling outside the windows, cuddling with puppy, snuggling under down comforters... Oh, and I HATE being hot and sweaty - which I get if the temperature is over about 77°. HOWEVER. It is now springtime. So I suppose I shall attempt to embrace it. We recently had a little taste of Mother Nature right outside my patio door... HUMMINGBIRDS!

When I first saw these guys - they were barely larger than tictacs

But that's not what they looked like when I first saw them. Note the progression that follows. Mama Hummingbird built her nest while we were in Africa (in December). Imagine how nice and quiet it was here at the house. No humans, no doggie. That poor mama hummingbird after we returned home. She and Lucca had MANY a face-off as Lucca tended to always be too close to that tree.

I caught a picture of Mama Hummingbird during a ridiculously
rainy night - protecting her eggs

(shot this with a 300mm lens from my sliding door)

I finally went outside one day to see what the commotion was about. And suddenly noticed the nest. A tiny little nest securely tucked into a branch of my potato vine tree! (Those eggs were just under a 1/2" in length.) It was incredibly fascinating to follow the progression...

You should be able to click on the pictures to see them larger

The nest ---------- 2 eggs laid

Day after hatching ---------- Eight days old

Fifteen days old ---------------- Twenty days old

I poked my finger in there to show how tiny the nest and babies were - but was extremely careful to not touch anything. Didn't want Mama to smell something and not feed her babies. I was so worried they might fall when they were learning to fly. And that I'd find one on the ground [or in Lucca's mouth.] But fortunately they seemed to develop very healthily and flew away by 28 days old.

"We're outtie Mom!" ---------------- The lonely nest after they left

We felt like little kids climbing up on a stool to peer at them every few days. I was a bit sad when they left. But I think Lucca's relieved she doesn't get squawked at each time she goes out her doggie-door...

Happy Spring!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Soupe a L'oignon Au Fromage

French Onion Soup with cheese. Mmmmmm. Now that the weather's warming a bit it doesn't seem quite so apropos to blog about this. But since it was so yummy fantastic - I'm still going to!

French Onion Soup is probably my most favorite soup if you remove Chinese soups from the list. I could make a meal on a big bowl baked with that crusty Gruyère top. When Kev & Liz came over last week I started this that morning to serve as a course that night.

Chopping 6 onions def made me cry --- Threw in a bay leaf and some thyme

They key to making a great onion soup is caramelizing the onions. It can take 45 minutes to an hour to do this, but it really gives that rich onion flavor to the soup that everyone looks for. This is the recipe I used but I read through a lot of the reviews and made some adjustments because of it.
  • Added some thyme, bay leaves, balsamic vinegar and sugar to the onions while they were caramelizing
  • Added the garlic about halfway through the caramelizing instead of the full time
  • Used red wine instead of white
  • In the future would use low-sodium beef broth only instead of half chicken broth
  • Added a little soup base flavoring
Perfectly caramelized onions - see those brown bits?

It was fantastic. And since this recipe made about 8 servings, it sat in the fridge for a week before I heated it and served it again... and it was EVEN better! So I might suggest making the soup a few days prior to needing it so the flavors really marinate together.

Just as good, if not better, the week after!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patty's Day to me!

OK so it's not really Irish. Nor green. Nor St. Patrick's Day themed. Nor did I even complete it today. But I finally have a knitting post to enter here and thought it might be nice to coincide with a holiday! Happy Saint Patrick's Day to ya! I had my corned beef and cabbage on Saturday - did you get yours?

For St. Patrick's Day - I wore green!
And modeled 2 styles of my most recent knit goody!

I haven't done any knitting since I completely OD'd on all these purses I made for good girl-friends last Spring. The thing is, most of the work involved in those purses was assemblage and not knitting; but I was still fried anyway. So I took a loooooong break. I couldn't bring myself to cast anything on until just last month. That's a full 11 month long break!

Casting on after 11 months off

I wanted to make a neck cowl last year and even tho it'd be a very simple knit, I never did it. I found my fingers itching to pick up the needles again this winter and thought I'd better hurry and get this cowl made before the cold weather is no more. Just in time! I've worn it 2-3 times now and it's been just what I needed on some brisk March evenings!

Coulda eventurned it into a hat! - 1 skein of the Eco Alpaca made 3/4 of the cowl

In Eco Alpaca by Cascade Yarns - I only needed a skein and a half (if even that entire half). I used size US6, 16" circular Addi Turbos, my FAV-OR-ITE needles. Easy-peasy knit. The pattern calls for a lot or purling, which I don't love I knit it backwards and got to do way more knitting instead!

Style 3: this is my favorite way to wear it - very warm

The thing that's cool about this pattern is you can really wear this knit a few different ways. I've thrown all 4 (5 if you count the hat) ways up here for you to see. Note - all the photos with my green striped St. Patty's Day top are there to show the different styles.

Style 4: knit side out and pulled tight up to the front of my neck
(try with all your might to ignore my double chin?)

I hope it stays cold out for a few more weeks!! And can I tell you - self portraiture is a pain in the neck (arm) when one is too lazy to get the tripod out...

Monday, March 16, 2009

A sticky situation

Most of you probably agree with me, but I love eating breakfast! Breakfast anytime! Not that I don't love lunch or dinner, but remember how fun it was when you realized you could order breakfast ALL DAY at Denny's? Or Mom didn't feel like "cooking" so we'd have breakfast for dinner?

Instead of dessert, I'd be perfectly happy to down coffee cakes; or French Toast; or crepes with powdered sugar and lemon juice; or Dutch babies; or a bowl of Lucky Charms; or.... sticky buns:

I LOVE sticky buns...

I made this round to take to my cousins when we stayed
with them too. Way better than paying for a hotel!

Mom has a great sticky bun recipe but I surprisingly haven't made it before. And this recipe is not actually Mom's but Peter Reinhart's. Not that I would opt for Peter over Mom in any given situation, but this is a tried and true recipe since the Daring Bakers made sticky buns in September of 2007; 8 months before I joined. Marce of Pip in the City hosted and selected the recipe for the DBs to tackle.
Now that is DEFINITELY doubling in size!

Cinnamon, sugar and cardamom --- Sprinkle LIBERALLY over the dough

This was back when I was merely stalking the Daring Bakers and hadn't committed myself to joining. It was silly fun for me to check blogs near the end of each month to discover what they'd done this time. So while I remember reading about the buns, I didn't make them for myself - until recently.

Place the rolled up buns on the butter, sugar,
corn-syrup topping sprinkled with pecans

After they rise again they'll be so big they'll fill in all that "empty" space between the buns

Instead of making these for breakfast I made them for dessert, after dinner. I took them to a friend's potluck and baked them at his house so that the entire house smelled like cinnamon. Even though I served them on the late side (on a Sunday and thus, a school night) most everyone stuck around to sample.

After the second rise - they bump into each other

The recipe called for cinnamon and sugar to be spread all over the dough, but I added a little cardamom which I actually had trouble tasting even though I could smell it. Also worth noting, DO NOT over-bake these buns. If baked too long, the corn syrup and sugar in the "topping" (on the bottom) will reach what's known as soft-crack stage in sugar cooking and will make for a sticky, almost hard topping, instead of gooey and soft. Recipe says 30-40 minutes but I think 30 would be fine, assuming your oven is at the correct temperature (always keep an oven thermometer in your oven to be absolutely sure!)

Ready to invert, pull apart and gobble up!

Making breads is always time consuming, not so much due to complication but to actual time; the time needed for the dough to rise. Whenever I have plans to spend an entire day at home, bread is typically on tap. These buns can even sit in the fridge overnight (or for a couple days) after the first rise. So if you want them fresh from the oven for breakfast - totally doable.

I wouldn't complain about starting my Sunday this way, would you?